surprise me when I was
asked to go undercover. Well, maybe a little because of what I
like to call “the incident” some ten years before—this case where a slimy creep
slipped through my fingers. But then I realized my superiors knew I was right
for the job. That incident was a fluke. A blip on my record. So they must have
thought they had no choice but to tap me for this particular task.
Naturally I jumped at it. I was ready for some danger in my life. And maybe I wanted to redeem myself in their eyes, too.
I’ll admit I’ve taken two or three lives in the line of duty. Okay, closer to eleven. And I’m very much aware that most cops go entire careers without ever drawing a weapon. What can I say? I liked the action. I wasn’t afraid to, you know, get dirty, work the gang-infested streets, rile up a tough guy here and there. In fact, I not only liked it, I loved it. Most of those gangbanger types were sniveling babies when you got them one on one. And when they saw that I didn’t care if I played by the rules, that I wasn’t afraid to put a bullet in their head if I thought I needed to, and plant a gun beside their dead, scumbag carcass . . . Well, it makes me smile just to think of them peeing their pants.
Now my undercover assignment was vague to say the least. I was to move into this monstrosity of a hotel called the Skyglow where people rented rooms by the day, the week, or the year. It had been built all the way back in 1899 and was sixteen stories tall. Later it was added on to, so that I’m not sure how many stories it has now. But you can understand the name—Skyglow. Towers reaching into the sky, glowing with electric lights. Get the picture? Massive, all angles and towers with curly cue decorations on the first two stories. I have no idea what kind of architectural style you’d call it. It was unique and admittedly spooky. I’d heard stories. Close encounters of the haunted kind. But, of course, I didn’t, and still don’t, believe in that sort of thing. Well, maybe for a while the place had me going. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So here was my assignment. Move in and figure out what’s going on. It was that simple, and that stupid.
Did I ask questions? You bet I did. There had to be more to it than that pittance of a directive. But my boss said he had to keep the full scope of the mission hush-hush. If anyone asked, I was to say I was an out-of-work actor looking for a job.
I stared at him, dumbfounded. And then get this. It was of paramount importance that I move in right away. I didn’t even have to go home and pack; they had packed a bag for me.
I climbed into the backseat of a car, between these two muscle-head cops who looked like muscle-head cops, and was whisked away to the hotel. When we got there, I couldn’t believe it. They escorted me inside. With all the windows in the place, anyone could have been watching. It was reckless. But that wasn’t the worst of it. They went with me to the front desk where they proceeded to check me in. Let me tell you, I was ready to walk out then and there. But I didn’t. I told myself there was the possibility they knew what they were doing and proceeded to ask with a slightly sarcastic tone, “Are you going to tuck me into bed?” I may have rolled my eyes. I don’t know.
Now the guy behind the counter didn’t say a word to us. He didn’t smile either. He was about seven feet tall. A giant, hulking piece of meat who looked familiar. I thought maybe he was a cop and we’d crossed paths somewhere in the past. I racked my brain, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. So, I decided, a guy that big, if I had met him, I would have remembered and let it go. But then I realized that his hair was all wet and his clothes were wet as well and that was just too weird to let pass. I opened my big mouth and said, “What’s the matter Big Chum? Someone push you in the hotel pool with your clothes on?”
His deadpan face took on this half-smile, half-sneer—the kind of look bullies give when they want to show their disgust at the fact that you breathe the same air as they do. He said, “This place doesn’t have a pool, wise guy. But I’ll let you know all about it when we have more time.”
I thought it was a peculiar thing to say and I stared at him, thinking so.
He handed one of the cops the keycard to my room, still sneering at me, and said, “Four twenty-two.”
Now I didn’t give a hoot about the remark or the sneer, and I didn’t care how big he was—I could have wiped the snotty look off his face in no time. But the fact that he didn’t give me my own key—that stuck in my craw. Who the hell did he think he was?
We started walking toward the elevator and I looked back expecting to see him leaning on the counter, eyes on me filled with scorn, but he was gone. And that was when I noticed that the place was a morgue; there wasn’t a soul in sight. Not one. And for some reason, that creeped me out.
Now I don’t put much stock in feelings like that. I consider them hazy nothings at best. Skyglow was old and decrepit, not sinister. It had good bones. Nicely planned and well constructed. But it had become a shabby pit with all of its artsy-fartsy history laid to rest. Cracked and dirty marble floors. Frayed carpets thrown around. No pictures. Yellowy walls, the shade of badly-cared-for teeth. Sofas and chairs were shoved here and there, most with the stuffing shooting out. The place was nothing to write home about and obviously, whatever my assignment, it involved the lowest class of person because only that type of person would reside in a dump like this.
We took the elevator to the fourth floor and as we walked down the hall I heard someone whimpering. It was muffled, but still loud enough to be irritating. It came from behind one of the closed doors, I couldn’t tell which one yet, and my first thought was that somebody’s dog needed to be let out to do its business. But then I heard crying mixed with the whimper and a man’s voice begged, “Pleeeze.”
It didn’t occur to me that we should check and see if the man needed help. I just hoped I didn’t have to hear his insufferable cries every time I left my room. It grew louder and as we passed room 412 there came a shout from behind the door, “Give me the shot! I want it now! I changed my mind!” And then came more pathetic whining.
I looked at the muscle-heads on either side of me who were staring straight ahead, acting as if they didn’t hear a thing, and I said, “So is it drugs? Am I looking for a drug related thing?”
At this point I didn’t care who heard me ask about my assignment. I was sick of the whole mystery aspect of the thing as well as the attitude of the cops who didn’t give a rat’s ass if I was seen with them.
“You’ll figure it out,” the shorter cop said and I think my jaw dropped to my chest because I’d gotten an answer, vague as it was.
We came to room 422 and went in and I found the place a sty like the lobby. It had a twin-sized bed, gray-blue carpet, a window with flimsy cream-colored curtains, a long dresser with a small TV on top, and one of those old fashioned landline phones. There was no computer and I doubted if the TV had a hook up for the universal web. I felt like I’d gone back in time. Everything was archaic.
I plopped my suitcase on a stand in an alcove. The bathroom was beside it and I poked my head in to see what I could see. There was no shower. Just a claw-foot tub and pedestal sink. No vanity. No drawers. I wondered where the hell I was supposed to keep my stuff.
The two cops looked around. One of them checked the window. It didn’t open. I don’t know what they were looking for, but once they were satisfied, they handed me the keycard and left. They didn’t wish me good luck.
The first thing I did was open my suitcase. I figured there had to be instructions of some sort inside. I found trousers, shirts, underwear, toiletries, a carton of smokes, and tucked under everything was a sheet of paper. It said to watch the television. I shook my head. This assignment felt like a game.
I put the clothes in the dresser and then I found the remote and turned on the TV.
The first channel was about the hotel—its history, its amenities—if you could call anything here an amenity. I hit channel up and got news. Another press and I got an old-time movie channel. One of those gangster flicks starring Jimmy Cagney played. I clicked again and was back where I started. Three channels. That was it.
I looked at the note again and turned it over to check the other side. Of course, nothing was there. I balled up the paper and whooshed it across the room. Damn them. I didn’t like games. Which channel was I supposed to watch? I picked the one about the hotel.
“. . . built in what was then the great city of New York. Among its storied guests: Jimmy Cagney (Ah, that’s why that movie.), Mae West, Jack Kerouac, W. Somerset Maugham, Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Charma Veigh, Lindsay Muffin, John Acosta, David Rohr. To name a few . . .”
It droned on and I quit listening while I went into the bathroom to take a leak. There were no towel racks. Towels were rolled up in a basket on the floor. I grabbed one. It was cheap and flimsy.
Jesus. If they expected me to live in the Skyglow a year, I at least wanted some decent towels. I opened the little bar of soap that was on the sink and washed then dried my hands. I eyed the tub with no shower.
I went back in the bedroom and lay on the bed.
“ . . . haunted.”
The word nabbed my attention. I sat up and stared at the TV. It had finished and began to repeat.
I learned where the restaurant was. The gift store. How to ring for room service. Housekeeping. Then it went to things less practical.
The voice on the TV said, “Every hotel in the United Socialist Territories of the Americas claims to be haunted these days. But we have been certified by the President’s commission on afterlife affairs to be among those sites proven to have ghosts.”
A guest was shown telling some lame story so boring I couldn’t pay attention.
“Tune in again. We’ll have more for you each month. But for now. If there is a knock at your door and you peep through the hole and see a little girl. Don’t answer it.”
I shut off the TV, ready to go downstairs and have a look around.
This time my walk down the hall was silent. Whimpering Man must have gotten his shot or given up the quest.
I took the elevator to the lobby and as I headed for the restaurant still saw no one around. Big Chum wasn’t manning the front desk. Some regular-looking dude stood there as if at attention. Hands behind his back, and his feet, even though I couldn’t see them, undoubtedly planted a foot apart.
“Food any good in this joint?” I asked.
“Fair to midlin’,” he answered with a nod.
I found the restaurant and was shocked to see it was a cafeteria with long rows of tables and chairs. I felt like a kid in grammar school. You didn’t order your food from a server. You spooned it for yourself buffet style, except you didn’t get any choices about what you ate and it wasn’t all-you-can-eat. A worker stood watching so you didn’t take too much.
I spotted only a few diners seated here and there, and decided it would be weird to sit next to anyone with so many empty, nonintrusive spots available. So when this guy in a white uniform sat next to me, I thought it was strange. He didn’t say anything. Just slipped the fork in his mouth and smiled at me occasionally. I ate half my dinner—the food was exactly as the front desk stiff had described—and got up to leave.
“See ya,” the guy said.
I stared at him. Something about him bothered me. He looked normal enough. Was even good-looking in a wimpy sort of way. But it was like his energy was trying to invade mine. I decided I didn’t like him and went back to my room. I watched an old movie and went to bed. Didn’t wake until morning when the sun hit my eyes.
It was three days into my stay when I first heard the knock at the door. I had no idea who it could be and peeped through the hole. Looking straight out I didn’t see anybody. I almost turned away when someone knocked again. I angled my view to look down and saw the top of a little girl’s head. She had brown wavy hair. I couldn’t see her face, but knew her nose had to be practically touching the door. She wore a sun dress.
“What the—” I hesitated. What was some little child doing at my door? She couldn’t have been any older than three or four.
“Your mamma isn’t here,” I called.
She knocked again. I thought about not answering, but after a couple of seconds opened the door. And guess what? She wasn’t anywhere to be seen.
I’d like to say I’d been napping and she was part of a dream. I’d like to say there was no evidence of her. But I can’t. I hadn’t been asleep and there were two pools of water on the floor where her feet had been. I squatted down and put my fingers to the rug. It was sopping. I pictured her and realized that her hair, as much as I had seen of it, had looked wet.
“Hey, kid!” I shouted. “Where’d you go? You want something?”
When she didn’t answer, I stood up, and that was when I noticed there wasn’t a trail of water leading anywhere. Just those two soggy spots. Maybe she’d been standing there long enough to no longer drip before she walked away. But what about when she’d approached?
I closed the door, pondering the kid and the water for all of a minute. Stuff like that can drive you crazy if you let it and I’m not one to let it. Plus, I really didn’t care.
The next day I met the housekeeper. It was the guy in the white uniform who’d sat next to me in the cafeteria. He’d said he’d see me and here he was, energy still seeming to intrude on my space.
He got to cleaning right away. Changed the sheets and towels. Vacuumed. Did a bit of talking, too. Nothing about himself. He asked me questions. What was I doing at the Skyglow? How long did I plan on staying? What did I think of the place?
It was a crummy, has-been, piece of real estate. What’d he think I thought? I grunted rather than answered and was glad when he left.
Time marched on. I went to the cafeteria for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It seemed to get more crowded each time I went. But I didn’t make any friends and no one struck me as right for my assignment, such as it was. After a month, I decided to have only two meals a day. I was getting a paunch. And then this one evening I didn’t feel like going at all. I ordered room service. It was the first time, and wouldn’t you know, I had to take a dump right before the guy tapped on the door.
“Leave it,” I shouted. But he didn’t. I heard the door open and I figured he had a key. Well, obviously, he did.
Now the door to the bathroom was open, but from where the toilet was positioned all I saw was a glimpse of movement. When I didn’t see him leave, I figured he wanted a tip. I wasn’t going to tell him where I kept my money, so I told him to take three cigs from the open pack of smokes on the dresser. I mean, they cost a hundred bucks a pack now so that’s five dollars each, and since drug companies came up with a smoke that’s actually good for you—repairing cells in your body, prolonging life—the law says everybody has to buy ‘em and smoke three a day. They fine you if you don’t. The thing that bugs me, cigs are still addictive and it’s hard to smoke less than a pack so it’s expensive. But all this is off the subject.
I finished my business and even though I never saw the guy leave, my food was there and he wasn’t. Nobody’d touched my cigarettes, but there was a trail of water on the rug. This made my skin crawl. I had to talk myself out of feeling creeped out.
My routine stayed pretty much the same. Sleep, eat, smoke, and watch old movies on TV. Ignore the housekeeper as best I could when he came once a week. Sometimes I’d leave and wander the hotel.
I started trying to convince my sorry excuse for a girlfriend to come visit me. I know the rules say there’s no contact with family or friends while undercover, but hey! I still didn’t know what my assignment was and I was lonely and bored.
She only picked up once—after I’d left a zillion messages—and reminded me that we’d broken up ten years ago. She didn’t want to have anything to do with me.
“Stop calling!” I’d forgotten how shrill her voice could be.
She was right. We had broken up, although I couldn’t remember why. I sat there by the phone, shaking my head, and right then the housekeeper comes in. Didn’t even knock.
“You blew it with her, huh?” He moved to the bed and tore off the sheets.
What? How’d he know who I’d been talking to?
“The way you’ve blown the rest of your life.” He whipped a fresh sheet in the air and started making the bed.
“None of your business!” It may have been the first real sentence I said to him.
“That’s all right.” He finished making the bed and looked at me. “You’re the master of your own destiny.” He moved into the bathroom.
What the hell was he talking about? I went to the door to challenge him. “What did you say?”
“You want to talk about it?”
I could feel that energy of his reaching out to me. I took a step back. “No. I don’t want to talk about it!”
He got down on his knees and started wiping out the tub. “When you’re ready, I’m here.”
I decided to forget it. That energy of his was making me nervous. It seemed like it wanted to take me over.
It was about this time I finally made some friends, or pseudo friends to be more accurate. All of them lived on the fourth floor.
What got us talking was Whimpering Man. All of us found him annoying. “Pipsqueak”—I gave each friend a gamer name which I never used to their face—claimed he was ready to break the door down and put the dumbass out of his misery. “Preacher” said there were two more just like the guy at his end of the hall. One cried so loud he sometimes heard him through the wall in his room. But, he claimed, he never got mad. He prayed for the poor man’s soul. “Motor-mouth” casually said he’d like to punch anyone who made that much noise in the face.
“Pipsqueak” was short and slight and I think he had the proverbial “little man’s complex.” He spouted the tallest tales anybody could and proudly told us that he used to rob banks. Said he’d killed a guard during one heist.
“Preacher” called himself an inspirational parson. He was craggy-looking, had this long white beard, and his blue eyes were clear as crystal. He told “Pipsqueak” in no uncertain terms it was time to repent. If he didn’t, he’d be going to hell.
Pipsqueak’s face said he’d prefer Preacher shut up. But Preacher went on and on. Said forgiveness was the answer and he’d help Pipsqueak make peace with God—for a price.
That was Preacher’s game. He was like one of those TV evangelists who pressured you to send money or be damned. That’s when Preacher said he was on TV.
“Not my TV. I’ve got three channels,” I said.
“I’m on the news channel. You have to watch at midnight. It’s called The Midnight Hour.” He gave a little speech about how it would save my soul. Preacher said all men were sinners and needed saving.
I caught the program later that week and discovered that “The Midnight Hour” was only twenty-five minutes long. If that didn’t say it all.
The third pal I made I called “Motor-mouth” because he didn’t talk much. He nodded and gave one-word answers most of the time. He liked to play poker, and we all thought that was a great idea. He had the cards so that’s what the four of us did.
We fell into a routine. Cards every night, always in my room. Bets were friendly, penny-ante stuff. Preacher was for upping the stakes, but I wouldn’t do it. And when he tried to put the pressure on, I asked him if gambling wasn’t a sin.
Playing poker passed the time. And for a few months that little girl quit coming around. Up until then, she’d been knocking on my door regularly which not only did I not like, I found it downright frightening.
Then one night around eleven-thirty she came back. Her knock was quiet-like, gentle because, you know, little four-year-old girls don’t have a lot of strength in their wrist or arm or body. I knew it was her.
“Who’s that?” Pipsqueak asked.
“Nobody,” I said.
She knocked again.
“Answer it,” Preacher said.
I stared at my cards and didn’t make a move.
Preacher got up and opened the door. No one was there.
“Must have moved on,” I said.
Preacher stared at me like he was trying to see past my skin and said, “You’ve done something that needs fixing.”
I lifted my gaze. “No, I haven’t. And don’t give me any guff about it.”
Pipsqueak’s complexion went ashen. “Weird stuff happens here,” he said. “You know that guard I killed? I’ve seen him in the lobby.”
“Guilt,” Preacher said. “Visions. God’s punishment.”
Pipsqueak gave Preacher a worried glance. “I see him every time I walk through the lobby. So now I don’t go there.”
“There’s no avoiding God’s wrath,” Preacher said. “You must be forgiven.”
We were all quiet. You could feel this tension and then the little girl knocked again. That was when I went ahead and told them who was there.
Motor-mouth went back to his cards. “Little girlie, huh? That’s what has your panties in a bunch? Why not invite her in? Quit scaring her away.” It was the most words I ever heard him string into a paragraph. Then he cackled this sick-sounding laugh, and I got this inkling that he liked to molest little children.
Preacher did too because he started shouting, “Confess your sins. Confess!”
Motor-mouth answered, “Let’s play cards.”
Preacher kept at him. Worked himself into a high-energy sermon which at first Motor-mouth took. But then he turned red and he talked back. They almost came to blows. Finally Preacher shut up.
“I am who I am. I ain’t gonna change.” Motor-mouth tossed his cards on the table. “You want to know what I’m hiding? Nothing. My story is all over the TV.” He strode to the door, opened it and knocked. “Oh, look. Nobody’s there.” His expression turned ugly. “Little girl who disappears. I’d take that any day over the bitch who shows up in my room and sets my bed on fire while I’m asleep. Yeah, it’s just a nightmare, but when I wake up I smell like charcoal and there are burn holes in the sheet. Plus, my heart is racing so fast I swear I’m about to have a heart attack. Live with that and then complain to me about some mysterious little kid.”
He slammed the door on his way out and the room shook.
“His story must be on True Crime,” Preacher said. “It’s five minutes to midnight. Where’s your remote?”
I gave it to him and he turned on the television. He tuned to the news channel which I now knew broadcast more than just news and we caught the end of “True Crime.” It wasn’t Motor-mouth’s story. It took me another month before I caught that. This program was over and was being summed up by its host, a young woman with long dark hair and sultry eyes.
She said: “His crime spree wouldn’t have ended except for the stowaway witness. His life sentence without the possibility of parole has run out of appeals. The bodies of his last two victims were never found. For True Crime, this is Maheema Goruombi. Thanks for watching.”
“Okay,” Preacher said. “None of you are supposed to know about this, but . . .”
He pressed the menu button and up came a blue screen. Preacher punched in four digits and all of the sudden we had a connection to the universal web.
“How’d you learn about that?”
“Professional secrets,” Preacher said as he found the “True Crime” website where any broadcast you wanted could be played. He searched the alphabetical listing of episodes until he came across one called, “Ladies on Fire.”
It sounded promising and we watched.
It was about a sex slave enterprise and in the midst of it was our poker-playing pal, Motor-mouth. He’d been caught after a fire he’d accidentally set surfaced the operation. He’d managed to burn seven kidnapped women to death.
“I’m sorry I charred up some of the inventory. And I’m sorry I was caught.” He displayed a sick, happy smile as he sat in a chair across from the reporter. He wore a hot magenta jumpsuit.
“What’s he doing out?” Pipsqueak asked. “Did he escape? Or’d they release him?”
We had to watch to the end of the show to get our answer. He’d been sentenced before life expectancy had become what it was today and they’d had to release him while there was still a lot of breath in his body, so ruled the World Supreme Court. However, the epilogue said he was to be tried for other crimes.
Maybe that was my assignment. I was supposed to get close to him and get him to confess to other offenses so they could put him away. If that was the case, they should have said so because we all lost our taste for cards after that, and as far as I know, none of us ever saw Motor-mouth again. I don’t know if he moved or what.
Time marched on. The housekeeper continued to try to talk to me and I did my best to avoid him. I started watching old movies. I preferred comedies, the stupider the better, but the stuff they broadcast was always scary and brooding. The little girl quit knocking at my door, which I was grateful for. But then this other thing started happening.
Every night around three a.m. I awoke to the sound of water running in the tub. I’d go check it out and the tub would be as dry as a bone. But then, this one night I went in and it’s filled with water. I stood there staring until I heard that familiar knock at my door. After feeling like my feet were nailed to the floor, I moved to the peephole. What I saw chilled me to the core. She was looking up at me. Her nose a button. Her eyes round and wild. Her mouth open in a half moon grin, baby teeth confirming she was just a baby.
I think I stopped breathing for a minute. I certainly didn’t open the door. I backed away and climbed into bed. She knocked all night and the water in the tub continued to spout. I stayed under the covers ‘til morning. Didn’t move a muscle ‘til daylight. That’s when the bathroom became quiet and she went away. I got up, went to the door and peeked out. She was gone. I went in the bathroom and looked at the tub. It was dry.
I didn’t leave my room that day. I called room service feeling I needed food in my belly to settle my nerves.
When the delivery guy knocked, I knew it wasn’t her, but naturally looked out the peephole anyway. I saw a close-up of someone’s shirt so I opened the door.
Big Chum stood there with the same cat-swallowing-canary grin on his face the little girl’d had the night before. Water dripped from his hair. He extended a plate of food and said, “Would you like me to come in and explain about that pool now?”
I slammed the door in his face.
I was jelly-leg scared after that and I don’t know how long I sat on the bed in a stupor. I was a body without a mind. I was a mass of neurons missing the correct receptors to allow me to move. I was a mess. It was night when I “woke up” and for all I knew, one day, two days, or even a month had passed.
I felt different than I had before. I was empty, listless, doped, exhausted—all those things. It was as if I’d been through something so terrifying I was too drained to even be afraid. And when the television came on of its own accord, I merely watched in a daze.
The narrator said, “True Crime. Two Deaths at Sea. The story of a daring con man who murdered people for their money. His last victims? A little girl with brown hair and her seven-foot-tall daddy.”
Some cog in my brain began to turn.
Little girl. Big man. Little girl. Big man. Little girl. Big Chum . . .
That cog in my head turned more nimbly and got bigger cogs to move.
Was I being haunted because I’d let them drown? I’d failed to save them? That incident from ten years ago where the creep had slipped through my fingers. I hadn’t given them justice so they were taking revenge?
Their pictures flickered on the screen. A loving father and his daughter. I stared, feeling more scared than sorry for them. I mean, they were haunting me and I was—
They showed my picture.
How could the show’s producers know about me? Only my bosses knew I’d been trailing the con man.
That’s when the fog began to lift. Something in my memory wasn’t right. Irritation took hold. I rubbed my jaw. I rubbed so hard the skin on my hands felt raw from the stubble. I felt a headache coming on.
And then I had a realization that made it all clear.
My bad-guy-got-away story was a lie. He’d been caught. And now I knew. He was me.
Big Chum’s real name was Roger Conroy and I’d chosen him to be my next mark. He had a boat for sale, a thirty-foot yacht called The Sainted Lady and I wanted it.
I posed as a buyer who wanted to be sure I was buying a well-maintained, top notch craft. Roger was pleased to show it off. We arranged a sailing date, just him and me. But then, surprise! He brought his little girl along.
I smiled at the child and mentioned something about how cute she was. What else could I say? She was there and I couldn’t make an issue of it. I didn’t want to delay the “transaction.”
We took the boat out and when we were a good distance from shore, Roger cut the engine. It was a warm, sunny day. The sea was peaceful. Water lapped gently against the hull. I told him I wanted the boat. Relaxed and happy, he told me I was making a great deal.
“I couldn’t agree with you more,” I responded. The little girl giggled and smiled up at me.
He’d brought lunch for us and a six pack of beer. I waited until he was bent over, digging in the cooler, and then I made my move. I placed a stun gun to his shoulder and delivered two-hundred thousand volts. It dazed him enough for me to be able to cold-cock him.
The four-year-old screamed, “Don’t hurt my daddy!”
I felt her tiny fists hitting my thigh as I handcuffed Roger. I grabbed her and slapped the two of them together. She was so squirmy I had to stun her with the gun before I could tie them up with nautical rope. Roger came to and she was fluttering her eyes just as I finished.
He started cussing at me, telling me what he was going to do when he got free. I ignored him and got busy bringing up the anchor. He kicked at me as I hooked it to the rope that had them tied. He knew what was coming and that was when his tune changed. He started begging for his life. “Don’t do this. You don’t have to do this. Please! She’s just a little girl.”
Never once did he make me want to change my mind because what could I do? The die had been cast. He shouldn’t have sprung her on me. And I still wanted the boat. The most I can say is, I didn’t smile as I watched them go over the side.
Now all I had to do was get back to shore and I could forge any documents I needed to sell The Sainted Lady. I would be a very rich man.
But I was in for a surprise. The four-year-old had a twelve-year-old stepbrother who was supposed to be home doing chores. Not wanting to miss out on the fun, he’d snuck on board and stowed away like a spy. If my timing had been different, if I’d just waited a smidge longer, I might have known he was there. But as it happened, I didn’t, and he watched the whole thing. When I brought the boat back to shore, he wasted no time getting to his mother and told her what he’d witnessed.
The TV went off. Those cogs in my head slowed. I heard the water running in the tub and my heart went to pounding like a jackhammer. Something was up. Something was about to happen. The muscles in my face began to quiver as slowly, very slowly, I turned my head.
Big Chum and the little girl stood in the area outside the bathroom door.
I scrambled off the bed, lost my balance, and landed on all fours. I heard them coming toward me. There was no way I could get to my feet in time to get away. Besides, they were between me and the door and he was seven feet tall. I kept my head down. I couldn’t look.
Something pressed against my shoulder and I heard a loud zapping sound as the electric current of a stun gun charged my nervous system. I lost control of my muscles. Nothing worked right.
Strong arms jerked me flat and rope was wrapped around my body. The next thing I knew, I was dragged into the bathroom where I lay on the cold tile floor. Water no longer flowed from the spigot of the tub and I knew it was full of water.
Petrified, unable to move my body, my mouth twitched and I found I could scream. Then: “Please. No. I’m sorry. I was wrong. Stop! Two wrongs don’t make a right!” That last statement made Big Chum laugh as he lifted me up, dropped me in the tub, and these little-girl hands held me under.
So, here I am telling my story. You must be thinking that I didn’t die. At first that’s what I thought, too. I’d felt the pain of water entering my nose and filling my lungs before I blacked out. But here I was, alive and conscious, in the tub under the water.
I jerked up, gasping for breath, flopping like a fish until I was out of the tub, lying on my belly on the floor. I heard the sound one makes when gulping for air as my chest heaved. I was in a lot of pain. But after a while, the pain subsided and I just lay there, wondering what was going to happen next. In time I loosened the ropes and rolled onto my back.
It sounds dumb now, but after the ordeal I’d been through, I couldn’t help but ask myself if I was dead. I had this idea that I was part of the hotel now. That I was a ghost destined to roam the halls of Skyglow for eternity.
I believed that outrageous thought for a few minutes before I realized I could feel my heartbeat. I stumbled out of the bathroom, stopping cold when I noticed an envelope had been slid under the door. I picked it up and read what was scribbled on the font: Read these and then come to the lobby.
I slipped pages of paper out of the envelope. They were stories. Four of them, all in my handwriting. I read. They were bizarre tales that all ended with my horrible death.
I went to the lobby and for the first time, the halls were filled with other guests of the Skyglow heading there as well. I didn’t ask anyone what was going on. I just moved with the flow like an automaton.
I barely had time to take a seat when someone yelled, “Williams. In here.” That was me, so I went through a door, into this office and there was my boss who’d given me the assignment in the first place.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“You don’t know?”
I eyed him. I hadn’t figured out a thing except maybe . . . I hesitated. “Does this place have ghosts?”
Now there was this other cop standing there and my boss looked at him and said, “Hasn’t fully worn off.”
The cop looked at his timepiece and answered, “Any time now.”
“What?” I said. “What are you talking about?”
But they were silent and maybe a minute went by. I don’t know because I was still kind of out of it. And then a thought hit me and I said the words, “Oh, God. Another year has passed.”
“You know where you are now?” asked my boss.
“You need me to fill you in on anything? Any holes in your memory?”
Lots of holes, but I wasn’t sure I wanted them filled.
“You know what year it is?”
“Twenty-two-thirty-four,” I answered.
“Five,” he said.
Okay, five, I thought.
“You know how old you are?”
“One hundred ninety-four.”
“You know how old they’ve calculated you will live?”
“Two hundred seventy-three. Genetics. You have a bad heart. The cigarettes can only do so much.”
“Who wants to live that long in here anyway?”
“No one.” He sort of smiled. “So what’s your pleasure?”
“No!” I was irate. “Don’t cut this short. This is one of the few times I get to spend with people in a lucid state. Explain it all to me again. That’s the law. That’s what you get paid the big bucks for.”
My boss, or rather the warden I knew now, looked at the other cop and then he said, “This is Skyglow Prison. It used to be a hotel. Most of the big centuries-old hotels are used as prisons nowadays. There’s not a lot of room to build new modern facilities. And no money.”
“And the law says you can’t kill me,” I added.
“No. We can’t kill you. Capital punishment was outlawed a century ago, but of course, society still breeds killers. Got to put you somewhere.”
“And . . .” I was going to make him say it.
“The law was changed . . .”
“The law was changed so that there are no more recreation yards or weight rooms. Not for people like you who really do deserve death.”
“But you get to do Cruel and Unusual.”
“Not at all. It’s been argued all the way to the Supreme World Court, appealed twenty different ways. Any cruelty you experience is of your mind’s own making. And the punishment may be unusual, but it has been ruled humane. That unusual provision written way back when was meant to thwart bizarre, painful stuff.”
“I experienced bizarre, painful stuff.”
“That your mind created.”
“So, I killed these people once. Why should I have to die over and over again?”
“You don’t have to. It’s your own mind punishing you. We just give you the shot that scrambles your brain for one year. You live the life your brain creates, within the confines of this prison, of course. And if you don’t like the scenario your brain comes up with, you have a choice.”
“I don’t have to take the shot. I can vegetate in my room for a year.”
“And I can’t change my mind once the year has begun.”
“Even though I may go stark raving mad.”
“I think that’s an exaggeration.”
“You’ve never experienced it.”
“You’ve tried it both ways. Every year it’s back and forth. Can’t take the solitary, you opt for the dream. Can’t take your own mind’s punishment, you opt for solitary. It’s not our fault if you don’t go for the third option. Of course, only one in forty thousand do.”
“What third option? What are you talking about?”
“You have to figure that out for yourself.”
I searched my brain for what he could possibly mean.
“What are you going to do this year?”
I stared at him. Both options were hell. What was this third choice he’d mentioned? I reviewed everything that had happened over the past year. I even thought about the stories I’d written covering those other years. The people I met were always different. Preacher, Pipsqueak, and Motor-mouth weren’t in any of those other nightmares.
And then I realized. The housekeeper was. What about him? I pictured his face. Friendly. Chatty. He always wanted to talk about me. And his energy always felt like it was encroaching. Like it was trying to change me. Transform me! That was it. What was it he’d said? You’re the master of your own destiny.
I got it now. He was my conscience. And if I could really change, really understand, really repent . . . What then? Would I stop drowning myself or shooting myself or burying myself alive?
I smiled and the warden seemed to know what I was thinking.
“I should tell you there has been a new development. The legislature passed a law. Starting now, you are only allowed to repent five years before you die. So the formula in the elixir we give has been changed.”
“That’s not right.”
“Do-gooders keep you alive. Not-so-do-gooders make sure you’re punished.”
“But I have seventy-nine years to go. I only killed six people.”
“That we were able to prove.”
Okay, eleven, I thought without going into particulars of how I’d snuffed out each one.
“And you would have killed more. For money. Their yachts. Their property. Their bank accounts.”
“I didn’t make enough as a cop.”
“You were never a cop, you sniveling piece of crap.”
He looked like he wanted to come at me from across the desk. “But you killed one,” he snarled. “And left a gun by his side trying to make him look like the bad guy.”
Oh, yeah. That shot they gave me had really scrambled my brain.
“You’re a sick-o scumbag and I’m tired of talking to you. Living in this rat hole is better than you deserve. Now you get to choose. So choose.”
“Shot? Or no shot?”
“Give me a minute,” I said, thinking, One minute. One glorious, real minute where what I see is real and I know I’m truly alive.
“Choose. Then you sit over there and write about the past year before you go back to your cell.”
I felt my eyes grow hot with tears and snot welled inside my nose.
“Sniveler,” the cop said.
Sniveler? He was right. I was the sniveler. I did this every year when it came time to make my decision because I was never ready and I had to make it quick. If I didn’t, they would make it for me.
“This time,” I said and I paused as I saw a tear splash onto my hand. I wiped it away. “This time I guess I choose . . .”